QUO VADIS PUBLIC BROADCASTING?


The upheaval at the public broadcasting service having taken place just before New Year in Poland followed by similar developments in March this year in Croatia has not drawn our attention only to the relapses of similar subversive activity staged in Hungary at the inauguration of Orban’s second government. The rudeness of methods selected by the new governments kept strongly reminding of the Bolshevik approach putting the existence, destiny and perspective of the public broadcasting media across broader Eastern Europe and consequentially in a long-term perspective also in Europe under a question mark.

Poland and Croatia certainly represent a relapse of a far too faint and confused reaction by democratic Europe to Orban’s plundering and the consequence of naivety that the ruling elite will eventually become aware of its misapprehension that such methods will not prove effective and be recycled.

Instead of disenchantment a new volcano has erupted. If it will prove legitimate considering the nature and size of Poland and Croatia as the new and most recently adopted EU member it will beyond any doubt encourage the intolerant potential imitators across a wider region who consider freedom of press, plurality and democracy a thorn on their side. It may also trigger a domino effect. Many incompetent, corrupt elites and regimes in the region are faced with a number of accumulated problems which they cope with inadequately not only for objective reasons. They would prefer to solve them by taking short-cuts – if possible without the disturbing public or at least continuous supervision. Therefore, getting a grip on media is their dream which they will increasingly try to imitate – if the new examples will remain unsanctioned and become socially acceptable since this is about two EU member countries and the EU is based on democratic values, liberties and transparency.

Regarding the anyhow problematic relationship by East-European rulers towards media the new Polish government topped all the negative records. By simultaneously limiting the autonomy of the constitutional court (following the example by Orban in Hungary) it literally overnight by using its parliamentary majority abolished all the existing media legislation and competences by the media regulators elected on a plural basis and without conducting any public discussion or consultation with independent media experts subordinating the management of public broadcaster to the direct authority of the government, and the appointing and dismissal of management boards to the treasury minister (not even the minister of culture) without any recourse who completed his task overnight. At the same speed, the new managers have changed the complete structure concerning other managing directors, responsible editors and other managerial staff thus changing the concept and mission of the public broadcaster.

The changes to the public service broadcaster in Croatia took place even without any amendments to the legislation however in the light of menacing demonstrations by loud extremists in front of the regulatory body and obvious intimidation of the HRT management board. Similarly, within a record time the acting general manager dismissed 35 managerial staff and keeps pursuing its fundamental staff and concept reform.

In both cases this represent a political take-over of media. Let’s just hope that this is not a new strategy by the EU Visegrad group.

In both cases, this was also a measure of high priority – even before the conservative governments and other governmental bodies became completely operational and without having mentioned such a goal during the election campaign at any time. This is another aspect raising the question of legitimacy of such a government which has obviously concealed its strategic goals and intentions. It is no wonder that in Poland this led to resistance and mass public demonstrations, while in Croatia to an increase of political polarization and fears in the media industry.
In Poland, there have been lay-offs of staff legitimated by the termination of the existing employment contracts. In Croatia, there have been no lay-offs (so far).

However, can anybody imagine the atmosphere in media institutions which should act integrating and affirmatively while people (and the people themselves) are clearly divided by political affinity into “ours and theirs”, in institutions where creativity, innovativeness and team work should be the fundamental principles? Is there a potential model of recruiting a fifth column and subversive activity for the next opportunity currently being created? In Romania, which unsuccessfully keeps seeking a solution to the politically induced problems of the public service broadcaster the staff from the other political option undermined the acting president and general manager of TVR (representing a personal union) by not having in the middle of the night reported on a major tragic accident in the centre of Bucharest claiming that she failed to provide rules on interrupting the program and responding to exceptional events. There was no mentioning of personal liability and professional attitude.

In the case of Poland and Croatia it is also about modifying the paradigm on the role and mission of the public broadcasting service, a new “re-education of the public and raising its awareness”, on imposing new ideological values and on the strong role of the catholic church which is in both cases considered the most conservative part and an opposition to the guidelines by the Pope in Rome. Apart from that this represents also an imposition of the majority model even in relation to other national and religious groups. By all means, this is a considerable discrepancy to the generally accepted understanding of the plural role, function and structure of the public broadcasting service.

In all of the three cases of assuming direct control by new governments over public broadcasting services in a violent manner this represents an unfortunate episode in the series on the uncompleted transition in East-European countries. If such a story continues the transition may obviously never end. It is absurd that the most blatant examples of taking possession and subversive activity in media are taking place in the new EU members who should attract the interest by non- members for membership and motivate them. During the accession negotiation period these countries were subject of scrutiny and harmonization with the EU Aquis, practice and values, while after the accession it seems that their violations and aberrations do not trigger adequate reactions.

There are of course examples of good practice in the region but it can not be denied that despite the unpopular character of such statements there are at least two kinds of Europe and at least two different speeds of raising democratic awareness. Unfortunately, there are also at least two examples regarding models and understanding of public broadcasting services.

Quite clearly, politics is making every effort to have influence over media or even control it since they represent its natural rival and potential enemy. However, between east and west this is not only about different periods of democratic tradition and differences in experience but also differences in political culture and awareness.

During the last years there have been few examples of west-European countries where victorious political forces after any change in government and as a rule would change and adapt media legislation. This remains stable and predictable. On the other hand, there is hardly any East-European country which after a change in power would not immediately amend in particularly media legislation in order to serve its particular interests to the maximum extent. The legal framework in such environments is in general unstable and unpredictable.

Stunted Transition in Politics and Media.

The new elites did not want to focus on the actual transformation of state-run to public media. At first, they relied on privatisation and gaining commercial allies, while in relation to media instead of the plural character the dictate by a single party was replaced by the dictate and interference by several parties using approaches strongly reminding of Bolshevik ones. In controlling the media one elite took the place of the other, the situation keeps being recycled, actions provoke counter-reactions and so on (obviously) until exhaustion. The quality of media offer in general has dropped considerably.

The looting in such companies is the name of the game. By such an approach, economic elites, tycoons and oligarch are gaining momentum and are increasingly taking over politics. They operate their own media so the public ones remain a thorn in their side. The Ukrainian president Poroshenko, a transition millionaire , remains owner of a TV channel and keeps dismissing any demand to give up its ownership.

Legislation and assurances on independent and editorial autonomy have been put to paper. However, they remain far from being enforced both in terms of awareness and practice.
Still today the statement by the earlier Slovak prime minister keeps echoing in my ears. At the occasion of a visit by an international group for media freedom he unveiled his understanding of democracy: “even you have confirmed that our elections were free. My government has been elected based on free will and legitimately. As long as I will be in power I will direct media according to my principles, I will allow the government to succeed me to do the same”. “Res publica” in fact exclusively means “res pars” being the majority model of understanding democracy, political culture and dialogue in the region.

In Poland, the TVP rating has already dropped considerably in January, while the rating of the main news program in February dropped by another 15 %. In Croatia, the concept has changed virtually overnight and all the anchors of news programs have been replaced, even so the layout in order to let people know that the changes were all-embracing.

Government propaganda is a slow seller but this does not concern the »reformers«. Most of the public broadcasters of East-European type have poor ratings and limited viewership which is also the result of low credibility and mistrust among the public.
However, this is also a collateral consequence of supervision and constant interference by politics.

Financing being the most obvious one.

While most of west-European public service broadcasters are financed by a “license fee” requiring by its nature a more direct relationship with the public and the citizen as the payees, the majority of related services in Eastern Europe depends on budget financing. State budgets never provide sufficient means for providing competitive content, while in all cases – despite formal statements on autonomy – this provides a reliable control. Governments control and ensure the subordination of media also in other ways – by lack of transparency and manipulating media ownership as well as in particularly by government/state advertising which is the most perfidious form of control and potential corruption.
Financing from the state budget remains by all means the best form of control. This is also a method of party populism and line of least resistance since in order to enforce other forms of financing they would need to face the voters – and to give up supremacy.
Meanwhile, in the region even other populist and party pressure on public media keeps intensifying – by demonstrations and organised protests in front of media institutions or by appeals put forward by politically influential persons calling for non-payment of the license fee or cancellation of subsidies – should the content not be compliant with particular interests. Such cases have been identified for example in Croatia, Moldova, Georgia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina and even in Slovenia.

Politicians can certainly not be the only ones to be blamed for the aforementioned.

It is true that political interference, legal and financial uncertainty cause instability regarding staff and managerial structures. The specific nature of public broadcasting services in Eastern Europe is that the staff is replaced far too quickly discouraging stable management. Pressure and instability is often caused due to inability of the political elites to agree about the loot , blocking the nomination of the governing organs and managers ( as currently in Romania and Albania ).
Self-censorship is a widespread phenomenon.

On the other hand, there is often lack of professionalism at-large, lack of personal initiative, boldness and expertise regarding internal organization of media. In most cases they have no strategies nor adequately defined mission and vision nor analyses of work processes and adequate norms and standards. This is of crucial importance considering the gigantic technological modifications and digitalization which keep revolutionizing the content and organization. One can no longer rely on (obsolete) practice and tradition. They need to adjust to new conditions and to find their own original solutions to them. Regardless of the revenues it would be necessary to calculate on a professional and undisputed basis the actual cost and cost-effectiveness of the operations. This way the PBM could at least partially have an influence on political decisions. There is far too little effective self-regulation.

In the light of the perception by Yanis Varoufakis on the physical phenomena of parallax meaning that “several different observations can be accurate and at the same time misleading” it needs to be pointed out however that during the last years of transition of the public broadcasting services in Eastern Europe the borders have opened and membership in professional organizations like the EBU have become accessible. This has encouraged comparison and the desire and need to exchange practical approaches and professional training. A critical and potentially increasingly bold internal force has been created fostered by an imminent change of generation which is opposing dictates and automatically requires richer and enhanced content (including investigative journalism). Examples inspire - therefore we should not underestimate the effects of solidarity and external assistance.

Last but not least, as a prerequisite for the upcomiong early elections the opposition in Macedonia and Montenegro is demanding in particularly the pluralisation and democratisation of the public service broadcaster. Are things moving anyway ?

But after all: is there a sufficient ratio and perspective of public media services in Eastern Europe?

The condition is that the traumatic practice of looting and subordinating public media is contained, that a discontinuance of transition is ensured and that the protagonists take a step back – in the name of preventing and recycling the evermore same problems, that by the anticipated modified legislation in Poland and Croatia they try to correct and balance the impression and the effect of subversive activity and to replace it with the essence and nature of the public service: by operating media according to the needs of citizens, the majority and all kinds of minorities as well as made to the their measure, ensuring different views and their democratic confrontation with the public and the transparency of procedures of adopting and implementing the rules, by releasing deregulation instead of regulation and by including political pluralism and civil society – without excluding anybody and without always referring to the past and making reference to it finding it a suitable excuse.

After all, this should also be a wake-up call for the international society and the superstructure. Despite the justified specifics of culture and traditions which can protect only a genuine and authentic public media service according to the specific requirements of an individual society and country, for the future in a civilized and democratic Europe it is however necessary to sanction at least the fundamental rules for ensuring the basic liberties, freedom of expression, independence of media and equality of citizens.

An EU membership is not a self-service market but moreover also respect for minimum uniform rules and obligations with the Council of Europe having codified the conditions and the environment. In 2013, the EBU adopted the deontological and ethical Core values and Editorial principles of PBM. Only a bolder professional differentiation and more effective functioning of the EU can lead to their implementation. No such strict standardization as defining the length of bananas is required however it needs to be more determined than by now.

Therefore, it is necessary to intensify the control over state aid and conditions for it (this refers not only to the license fee but also financing from the state budget and subsidising of projects) not only by verifiable triggering mechanisms regarding independent content but also plural governance and control over public broadcasters. This does not mean only the required qualified majorities in parliaments but also a more balanced role of politics and the civil society.

Only this way public media also in Eastern Europe will become socially relevant and credible . Otherwise the recent entanglements in Poland, Croatia and Hungary will not only represent a new transitional episode but a perpetuum mobile which every time being recycled will make it more trivialised and worn out until it will become overridden.
A more recent assessment is that this may happen much sooner than expected.

Boris Bergant

Dr. Erhard Busek - SEEMO 2009 Award
Oliver Vujovic (SEEMO Secretary General), Boris Bergant, Erhard Busek (former Vice-Chancellor of Austria)


Boris Bergant

born 1948

Boris Bergant

Media Adviser

Deputy Director General RTV SLO 1989-2006

1990-1992 President of Circom Regional, European Association of Regional Television

1995-2001 Secretary- General, Circom Regional

1998-2008 Vice President of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU/UER)

2009- Senior Consultant, EBU

  • working as consultant for broadcasting management, content, organisation
    ( developed Strategies of Public Service Media in Slovenia, Moldova,Georgia, Serbia, Montenegro, Ukraine )
  • consulting media in Serbia, Slovakia, FYR Macedonia, Armenia, Kyrgistan, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Kosovo, Cyprus, Portugal, Austria, Italy

Representative of the Republic of Slovenia in different media committees of the Council of Europe ( 2004-2008 Chairman of the Standing Committee on Transfrontier Television).

Experience in journalism: journalist by profession, President of the Slovenian Journalist Association (1987-1992).

Awarded with high remuneration's for journalistic work:

  • Tomšičeva nagrada for the best journalistic achievement in Slovenia, rewards at the TV festivals Monte Carlo, New York, Leipzig
  • Busek Award for outstanding achievements

Publishing in the field of foreign politics and broadcasting